Buttermilk Party Cake- A Manifesto

When I was 16 I started cooking at home because I had decided to become a vegetarian, and while my mother didn’t give me a hard time about the choice, she wasn’t quite sure what to feed me. Since we lived alone at the time, I naturally began to cook for our little household to show that it could be done, and that I wouldn’t waste away and die. Mostly my efforts consisted of baked potatoes or spaghetti with various vegetable toppings, though I eventually started eating meat again and branched out into more advanced scenarios like preparing Thanksgiving dinner.

This is when I learned things like- no joke- mashed potatoes come from whole potatoes, NOT potato flakes! It was nothing short of a revelation. If the thing about potatoes was true, what about green bean casserole with French's fried onions on top? What the hell was in Manwich anyway? Is it ever ok to include mini marshmallows, whole or melted, into your dinner? Can you make a pot of chili without a flavor packet to aid you? It was as if I ate the red pill, the Matrix fell away, and I could see the truth, that food comes from…whole ingredients. Actual fruits, vegetables, grains, starches, the works!

Investigating and refining this concept over the last good-lord-has-it-been fifteen years, I’ve plunged myself into finding out anything and everything I can about where my food comes from and how I can make it myself. And way back in the beginning, after ransacking my childhood home for anything other than the Betty Crocker Cookbook, I discovered a very important document which now makes up something of my philosophy of food and home and cooking, which I am still dissecting and pondering: my great-grandmother Nettie’s own hand-typed book of recipes. It is crumbling and yellowed and hasn’t been used for at least a generation. The recipes are firmly old-fashioned (marrow balls, anyone?). The most interesting bit- which prevented me from actually using it for years- is that Nettie didn’t bother to write instructions for how to ‘do’ any of the recipes in the book. She only gives the name of the dish, the ingredients and their amounts or proportions, and then leaves you to figure out the rest for yourself. Sometimes she gives a helpful note like ‘(good),’ to let you know this one’s worth a go, and she always tells you who gave her the recipe. Her sisters Gussie and Bessie feature heavily, as do various aunts, grandmothers, and other women from their Brooklyn neighborhood.

What I find so interesting about this is that she took it for granted that whoever read her book would already KNOW how to assemble a basic cake using the creaming method, or would already KNOW not to overwork a biscuit dough. And this brings me to my second revelation: over the last fifteen years, I have been doing nothing less than reinventing the wheel. What my mother’s generation did was to reject the traditions that were forced on them, so that we wouldn’t have to be put in that box. But now I find that I wish I had inherited those traditions. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to be trapped in a box with them- part of what’s so enjoyable about cooking for me is that it is an interest I have elected to have- but it would have been nice if the baby hadn’t been thrown out with the ol’ bathwater.

So I am teaching myself the basics: how to make bread, how to make basic sauces, how to know if your roast is done- the list goes on and I will bring you along with me on my journey, dear reader, into the forgotten nuts and bolts of everyday kitchen life. And I am also teaching myself how to economise in the kitchen- to eat really genuinely well, with fresh foods and formerly happy meats but without throwing out half a roast chicken because it didn’t occur to me to do anything else with it- not only because I’m cheap (I am), but because I don’t want to participate in the kind of shameless waste of resources that would make Nettie turn over in her grave. And finally, I am forging a new connection with my antecedents, getting to know Gussie and Bessie and the ladies of the neighborhood by trying the recipes that they thought were (good), like Nettie’s Buttermilk Party Cake, which I imagine they all enjoyed together in their Brooklyn brownstone for someone or other’s birthday.

This is not to say that I am only interested in kitchen traditions and comfort food. I am a great seeker of new experiences, an appreciator of cutures far from my own, and a practitioner of variety being the spice of life and all that. I can comfortably say that I have never encountered a food that I wouldn’t at least try, and that’s saying a lot after two years of living in Asia. In fact, I can hardly think of any foods that I categorically don’t like.

If I were wealthy I’d spend my evenings in cutting edge restaurants being fed by chefs who are really pushing the boundaries, but sadly, I am not and I don’t. Instead, I occasionally splurge on some nice ingredients and try one of those boundary-pushers’ recipes at home, and every great once in a while, I save up a little cash for a special occasion and try the real thing.

So…I’m reclaiming lost traditions and chasing the world’s endless variety at the same time. Not an easy feat, I realise, but one I’m willing to commit to, dragging my friends and family along with me, and possibly even a few strangers too. One meal at a time.


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